Should sexism be a punishable offence?

Has policing sexist behaviour has gone far enough?

08 Mar 2018

Bumble creator and Tinder co-founder, Whitney Wolfe, recently announced that, was she to become London Mayor for the day, she would: “Make misogynistic behaviour a criminal act and have this regulated and formal legislation passed.”

A world with punishable misogyny sounds like just the kind of feminist utopia we’re looking for... or does it?

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This International Women’s Day, is it time to ask if policing sexist behaviour has gone far enough or does it need to go further?

Firstly, before Mayor Wolfe takes office, let’s look at exactly what legislation currently exists.

Unfortunately, it is not illegal to be sexist. What is in place are laws that present sexual discrimination and harassment. Under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003, sexual assault - in all its forms - is punishable. Someone who touches you sexually on the tube, for example, could receive a prison sentence or a fine. Under the Equality Act of 2010, sexual discrimination and harassment are punishable offences, but these are usually limited to the workplace, places of education or when using public services.

Where most ground has been made is workplace sexism. Success rates aside, there is a process in place for what to do if you face sexual discrimination or misogyny in the office. If Pervy Paul from accounting goes too far, if you suspect your boss has hired Steve over Eve for the worst possible reason.

But what about everyday sexist behaviour? The men who stand huddled in groups and gaze at you for a little too long on a dark night, or those who yell obscenities at you as you walk away that bit faster? So many of the #metoo stories that have poured out over the last few months have been about this kind of treatment; the simmering threats of sexual violence, the acts of micro aggression, the insulting comments.

A lot of these incidents happen unperceived by the male eye. It’s like the high frequency sounds that only dogs can hear. It can often feel that we live in a totally different world to men. Commonplace situations, like walking home at night, are completely different for men and women. If legislation reflected this, would we be able to call perverted, abusive behaviour into account? Or is it simply not illegal to be a jerk?

Unfortunately, this is the behaviour harder to police and to prosecute. Samantha Rennie, director of , a charity which supports initiatives for women and children, recently told the BBC that she believes there should be tougher criminalisation in this field. But, though sympathetic, there are many lawmakers who would point to the tricky legal grey area of this issue.

Of the inevitable backlash that erupted post #metoo, one of the most irritatingly prevalent was that it had gone ‘too far,’ and that ‘just talking’ to a woman would get them in to trouble. Besides, the fact that this line of argument gloriously misses the whole point of the #metoo movement, there is a sad truth to it.

It would be impossible to police everyday thought and conversation with legislation in the same way that we do actual acts of sexual discrimination in the workplace. Interpreting sexist behaviour can be as varied and nuanced as feminism itself; what each woman finds offensive may not be the same across the board. For the same reason, it is not illegal to be racist, just to act on those prejudices, and it's not illegal to be a misogynist, unless you act on those views.

There are facets of this behaviour that should, and hopefully will be, made illegal. There have been promising calls to make ‘Upskirting’ a criminal offence, the same way that revenge porn was successfully made a punishable act. The noise of #metoo will also hopefully emphasise the laws that we do have in place. Let’s remind everyone that that ‘cheeky’ bum grab on the tube is, in fact, an ‘illegal’ bum grab on the tube. Hopefully we are living through a moment where awareness of these issues is stronger than ever.

Whilst increased legislation may not be the answer, as with anything this nuanced and riddled with grey areas, the key could lie in education. So, personally, if I was Mayor of London for the day; I would make ‘Not Being a D*** To Women’ a compulsory subject at school.

Then let’s see what happens.